23.5ct Gold Leafed Stratocaster. Finishing the body.

In theory – there should be no need to protect the gold leaf, since 23.5 ct, (98%) gold shouldn’t tarnish. However – a guitar body gets a fair bit of wear and tear, so I want to put at least some kind of fine lacquer coat over the gold to protect from scratches, and to reduce the risk of the gold wearing off due to repeated rubbing. The problem is, any kind of coating will probably reduce the “fire” of the gold. Easy does it!

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There are a couple of places on the body, where the gold leaf appears to have attached leaving slight tear marks, or where the oil doesn’t appear to have bonded to the leaf properly. Perhaps I missed them when applying the size. Perhaps the size there had gone over the open period. Whatever – where the marks are too noticeable, I want to patch over them before continuing. I’ve already faulted the back of the guitar – now, on the face, there appear to be three areas I need to attend to. Two are small specks where the leaf hasn’t properly covered. The third is where some roll marks in the leaf come to an abrupt end at the edge of one of the transfer sheets. There’s also a slight haze here where I may have pressed the leaf too hard, too early. Whilst some detail and process marks are unavoidable, and whilst I always think that these, individual marks are unique fingerprints of a proper, hand-crafted finish, I’d like the actual transition here to be a little more subtle. In all three cases, I need to apply a little more size over the affected areas – this time trying to keep the areas of application small, and feathering-in the application as much as possible. I charge a small, clean, size brush, and then wipe much of the excess off on a piece of paper. That way, I can apply the size, with the almost dry brush, over the faults. Too much of a build up of size, will reveal distinct edges to the gold “patches”, so any application needs to be as thin as possible, whilst remaining sticky enough to hold the leaf. Feathering-on an almost dry size gives the best chance of “invisible mending”.

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The thin applications of size go off much quicker, and reach open time much sooner than thicker, liquid coats. Once the size patches have achieved proper “tack”, the leaf patches can be laid over the top, and gently pressed. The patches will take a little longer than normal to dry, so final pressing should be delayed as long as possible. The body is then left to cure again for a whole week – just to make sure everything is properly dry.

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Once the size is completely dry, the gold leaf is properly bonded on – but it’s still easy to damage the surface and scratch areas off with careless handling. Let’s face it – any guitar is gong to get plenty of that. Some gilders use shellac to seal and protect the leaf – especially in external applications – however, shellac can yellow over time, and building any sort of coat up over the gold can completely kill the “fire” from the highly reflective finish.

I’ve used Roberson’s Universal Lacquer on some gilding projects before and, whilst it still dulls the leaf a little – it’s quick and easy to use. And it dries clear, and won’t yellow. I hope to be able to apply a thin enough coat by using an airbrush to spray a fine, thin application. The Universal Lacquer is water based, and quickly dries to a hard, durable, satin finish.

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The lacquer is quite thick, and needs a little thinning to reach a decent consistency which can then be sprayed using a small Badger airbrush. Once I get the consistency right, I apply a fine coat over the entire body, working on the edges first – before working on each face in turn, as the previous applications dry. It’s quite difficult to see the fine coat land – even working into the light. Whilst it’s important to keep the coat as thin as possible, it’s also important to ensure that the application is consistent and complete. In the end, it’s a question of applying just enough so I can be sure of proper coverage. That’s probably slightly more than I actually need – but without any colour to the lacquer – it’s really difficult to see exactly where the spray has landed. The only clue is an apparent, slight wetting of the surface under strong light, but that doesn’t hang around for long. Each application takes only 45 minutes to fully harden, so you need to work quickly.

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Once the lacquer is dry, the surface has an overall soft sheen, instead of the previous, highly reflective specular type reflection of the bare leaf. Much of the shine and detail is still there, but the highlights now only really shine out where the overall reflective surface is curved. The flat areas of  the body face and back still show the grain detail of the gold foil, but the overall shine is a bit more matte than it used to be, and the overall effect appears a bit more general, and uniform all over. Some of the shine and glitter has definitely gone – It definitely isn’t quite as “bling” as it used to be. That said – the finish is now as durable as I’d want it to be, and I’m looking at this on a dull day in the depths of winter. Once the guitar has been dressed up with shiny hardware, and is illuminated under some half decent lighting – I think the finish will likely come alive again. At worst, the gold finish now has the slightly more worn and tired look of what they usually call “old gold”.

With the benfit of hindsight, and if I’m super picky – I might go with a thin coating of shellac next time, instead of the acrylic Universal Lacquer. Perhaps I’ll try using a fine airbrush with a thinned shellac solution, to try and lay down a thin, super fine coat. The satin lacquer coat has a bit of “plastic,” feel to it, and the spray has laid the lacquer down with a very slight, barely perceptible, stipple to the surface finish. This tactile experience isn’t perhaps quite what the mind is expecting when handling gold. The tactile finish is, perhaps, a little incongruous overall. This might appear super fussy to some – but the tactile nature of the guitar body finish is a big thing in my book. The guitar body, and especially the Stratocaster – has a major sculptural aspect to its’ shape. A shellac coat might provide a better, and perhaps more traditional, finish overall – from a tactile point of view anyway.

It might always be possible to improve on the overall shine of the satin lacquer coat, by polishing up the finish using wet and dry micro mesh. However, there’s always the risk of polishing through the coat, and damaging the leaf below – so I’ll stick with what I’ve got, this time. I can always try out some other options on another version of the body – perhaps later on in the year. Sometimes – if you keep trying out different options, and chasing little imperfections, you end up losing the whole piece – never getting anywhere.

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Now that the body finish is complete, I can get on with lining out the body cavities with copper foil. Whilst the Noiseless Fender pickups are supposed to cut down on the need for good -ld-fashioned shielding remedies, I am, at heart, a belt and braces man – and it’s only a bit of copper foil after all. Once done, the copper shielding should ensure that all parts of the circuit and wiring are properly grounded, and also properly shielded from external EMF. I take the opportunity to shield all of the cavities on the front face – including the, so called, “Clapton rout”. Ultimately, this bit of shielding will, itself, have to be shielded from the conductive parts of the small circuit board which fits within. The copper should, however, help to protect the circuit from any potential interference due to the placement of the battery pack in the rear, tremolo spring rout.

The copper foil has a conductive adhesive, and all pieces are burnished down so that they adhere to the body properly, and to each other. Once the copper lining is complete – the continuity is checked all over with a multimeter.

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Once the rout for the MDX circuit is fully lined and shielded, I use some thick industrial Velcro, (the wooly loop side), to fully line the cavity again. This additional layer acts as a cushion for the circuit board, and also insulates the solder points on the base of the board from accidentaly grounding on the copper lining. The Velcro also provides an effective seat to pad the board, keeping it from rattling around in there. It’s a snug fit all around, and the little lugs of solder also tend to snag onto the Velcro – just like the hook side would – effectively securing the board firmly in place. Consequently – there’s no actual need for it – but the board does allow for securing screws to be located at each of the corners of the board. I drive a couple of screws in there – just in case. Like I say – I’m a belt and braces sort of guy. A couple of spare tuner screws do the job nicely.

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